TV Preview: Are the robots here to serve? AMC’s sci-fi thriller ‘Humans’ explores
Anita the android can run a household, look after the kids, cook and clean, read bedtime stories and even laugh at Dad’s corny jokes, all while looking like an exotic supermodel. Rosie the robot from “The Jetsons,” she is not.
Stylized and efficient, with just an overnight plug-in required, Anita is the perfect addition to a busy family and a spot-on surprise gift for a working mother of three.
Full disclosure about Anita: She has passive-aggressive tendencies and signs of actual life behind those glassy eyes, which definitely wasn’t mentioned in the sales pitch.
FULL COVERAGE: Summer TV preview
The setup for AMC’s new summer sci-fi thriller, “Humans,” goes far beyond the self-driving car, drone-delivery, smart-home era of 2015 to weave technologically advanced artificial intelligence into the very fabric of its fictional society. The series premieres June 28.
Taking place in a parallel present day, sophisticated robots, dubbed “synths,” are caregivers, professionals and worker bees, coexisting side by side with their flesh-and-blood counterparts.
It seems ideal, but there’s unease just below the surface, with characters in the show questioning and debating the synths’ roles. Are they saviors or slaves? Are they community members or property? What exactly separates man from machine when both look and behave nearly the same way?
“It’s really quite close to reality as technology gets further integrated into our society,” said Colin Morgan, who stars as Leo in the series. “And we probably don’t understand exactly what we’re getting ourselves into.”
Based on a successful Swedish show, the eight-episode cable series isn’t meant to depict a perfect world or a dystopia, said writer Sam Vincent. It’s filled instead with open-ended questions about the definition of humanity, including its “dark underbelly.” (There’s a brothel staffed exclusively by synths and evidence of other machine maltreatment.)
“Humans,” which filmed in London, stands apart in sci-fi for its domestic setting — rather than, say, a lab or research facility — and its peek into the daily interactions between humans and androids, Vincent said.
William Hurt, who stars as George, a lonely widower, sees his boyish blond-haired synth as a beloved child. He fights to keep Odi, the outdated and glitch-prone model, even though he’s eligible for a matronly upgrade named Vera that could better track his meds and keep his doctor’s appointments.
Laura (Katherine Parkinson) is inherently suspicious of synths and not just because her kids may get lazy if they have an automaton doing all the chores. She catches Anita (Gemma Chan) hovering territorially over her youngest daughter and commenting wistfully about a moonlit night. So much for her being a dumb machine.
Characters fret that they’ll be replaced by carefully engineered synths that are smarter and sturdier than they are. Laura’s teenage daughter thinks there’s no point in studying in school when a synth will probably land a job she’s envisioned for herself.
Setting up the show’s central conflict, “Humans” has a rogue faction of synths, with ties to Morgan’s mysterious Leo. These synths have feelings and thoughts — they’ve somehow become sentient beings, and there’s a hint in the first episode that one of their designers intentionally armed them with human qualities.
This high-tech subject matter has had a workout lately in entertainment through movies like “Chappie,” “Big Hero 6" and “Ex Machina” and will appear on TV with HBO’s remake of “Westworld.”
It’s also an ongoing cultural conversation with prominent futurists and entrepreneurs like Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk warning about the potential dangers of artificial intelligence. Hawking recently said it “could spell the end of the human race,” and Musk said it was “summoning the demon.”
That may make it a good time to launch a zeitgeisty show like “Humans” as AMC looks to fill the void left by the departed prestige dramas “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.”
“People are expressing some very real concerns about the future of AI,” Vincent said. “There’s definitely some anxiety in the air.”
And advanced technology has become so commonplace in the world, with robots involved in numerous industries like healthcare, that audiences may easily accept the idea of ultra-lifelike “Humans” synths, writer Jonathan Brackley said.
“We’re already carrying around technology in our pockets that can access the entirety of human knowledge,” Brackley said. “It’s not that much of a stretch.”
Morgan said he thinks people like to anthropomorphize technology, assigning personalities to gadgets. “We’re already in love with our Roombas,” he said, “and we say, ‘I love him,’ not ‘I love it.’”
The synths in “Humans” are all human actors, of course, who studied with a choreographer to get robotic movement down pat. They called it “synth school,” and it taught them to nix facial expressions and hand gestures and to move “with absolute grace, like in a Japanese tea ritual,” Brackley said.
Viewers will never see inside the synths, going against the tide of decades’ worth of movies and TV shows that have revealed tangles of wire and metal parts under the exterior. As far as it gets is the “conductive fluid” — the synth version of blood — when they’re felled.
“They’re naturalistic, and we wanted there to be a certain elusiveness to how they work,” Vincent said. “Outwardly, they look just like us.”
And if the synth doesn’t suit, there’s a liberal return policy. Buyers in “Humans” have a month to take them back if they change their minds. No questions asked.